SEAT manages to persuade Volkswagen to finally let it have the ultimate iteration of its 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine for the Leon Cupra hot hatch, creating the limited edition Cupra R in the process. It's the resurrection of a badge SEAT has used before but, in this instance, the Leon Cupra R is not just a bit quicker and more powerful - it actually has a suite of useful chassis upgrades too. It's also a strictly limited edition; so limited, in fact, that we're going to get precisely zero examples here in Ireland. Booooo!
In the metal
Starting with the SEAT Leon Cupra is a pretty sound basis, as - despite the third-gen Leon's advancing years - it remains a crisp piece of car design. And the Cupra R is unmistakeable. A dream for fetishists of electrical conductors, the Leon's defining feature is copper. Lots and lots of it, clothing various surfaces. Obviously, it's not actual copper, of course, merely copper-coloured highlights, but they're peppered all over the exterior and interior of the Cupra R, such as in the front airdam, for all the external badges, on the door mirrors and surrounding the air vents, gear gaiter and infotainment panel in the fascia. You may also have spotted a set of absolutely gorgeous black-and-copper bicolour alloy wheels, which are 19 inches in diameter and exclusive to the R. The overall aesthetic is superb, we reckon, with plenty of moody menace provided by the Cupra R's re-sculpted bumpers, its stance, the matte-grey paintwork and the use of carbon fibre for the side skirts, front spiller, rear diffuser and the roof spoiler.
We need to talk about the cabin a bit more, actually. SEAT interiors are often the Spanish firm's weak point, because while they're well appointed, solidly constructed and blessed with stolid Volkswagen Group switchgear, they lack for much in the way of visual flair. The Cupra R is by no means perfect inside, giving it is using the 2012-spawned Leon's architecture as its basis, but the addition of an Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel and gear knob, plenty of fillets of gloss black detailing, that aforementioned copper threading, a wholly new set of light grey dials in the instrument cluster and a pair of sumptuous Cupra-branded bucket seats in the front all do more than enough to make this cockpit feel several levels above that of a normal Cupra 300. Shame about that questionable vinyl 'carbon fibre' on the door cards, though.
SEAT hasn't just turned up the engine from a Cupra 300 to 310hp and dusted its hands with the whole project; oh no. Instead, each example of the Cupra R will start life on the Martorell production line as a regular Leon Cupra. Once it reaches a certain point, it is then handed over to SEAT Sport (the motorsport arm of the business, responsible for creating the Leon TCR customer racer), which goes on to complete the car to its own exacting standards.
So, in summary, the Cupra R has the following upgrades over and above a 300: those 19-inch alloys come on wider tyres that increase the track of the car; the front wheels have additional negative camber, to improve turn-in and handling; the variable ratio steering has been modified to be more responsive just off dead-centre, meaning the Leon reacts quicker to minimal driver inputs; the three-stage Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) adjustable dampers have been recalibrated to account for all the aggregated hardware; and the large brake discs are now gripped by some black-finish Brembo callipers.
The outcome of all the above is that the claim that SEAT makes, which is that the Leon Cupra R is the most focused car it has ever built, seems entirely plausible. It's still a brilliantly dichotomous car, the Cupra R, blending the regular Cupra's affable day-to-day usability with sharp handling. What's happened, though, is that SEAT has managed to massage the rewarding kinematics of the Cupra R to a new echelon of ability, without making it a hard-riding, undriveable mess in town and out on motorways.
That means it's everything you could want of a thrilling hot hatch. The performance from the 2.0-litre motor is epically strong, although you'll be hard-pressed to feel the additional punch of the extra 10hp over a Cupra 300 from a subjective point of view. Suffice it to say, the Leon Cupra R is mighty quick and while the manual model's 0-100km/h time might not be as impressive as that of a Cupra 300 DSG, the ST Cupra with 4Drive traction or, indeed, the Golf R to which this SEAT will continually be referenced by every petrolhead pub bore from here to eternity, once it is on the move it feels as mighty fast as anything else with this engine from the wider Volkswagen Group.
It sounds good, too, but not quite as rewarding as other machines in this class - or, in fact, other classes, like the MINI John Cooper Works, for instance. There are some pops and burbles from the exhaust when you release the throttle in Cupra mode, but they're muted, and the general voice of the Leon is fairly quiet inside the cabin. An Akrapovic exhaust system would have sorted this, but we suppose SEAT wanted to keep the car useable and civil on fast main roads, and there's already a bit of a drone from the exhaust at 3,000rpm as it is.
Never mind; the Cupra R compensates you handsomely once the corners come. It's equipped with a mechanical VAQ limited-slip differential on the front axle and that - coupled with the aforementioned changes we've outlined, plus the limpet-like Michelin Cup 2 tyres (that our test car wore) - makes the front end of the Leon positively rabid. Turn-in is instantaneous and almost prescient, while the grip levels are off the charts. Try and get the nose to push wide on the road and you're basically going to have a massive crash, because understeer simply isn't an issue at any regular velocities. Furthermore, if you somehow contrive to miss the apex of a corner in the Cupra R, then a healthy dose of throttle sees the VAQ diff pull the nose in ever tighter to sort everything out.
OK, so the car is extraordinarily planted, meaning rear-axle interactivity feels like an afterthought (although there is some feeling of the back moving when lifting the throttle), but in essence the handling is magnificent. Special plaudits, too, for that revised steering, which is not only super-direct, but also has some real feedback and a wonderful heft to it in all modes, while the tweaked DCC manages to blend rigid body control and bearable ride comfort to a decent degree across all settings. The only minor black mark revolves around the brakes; there's masses of stopping power from the Brembos and the pedal progression is excellent too, but it feels like the travel is still set up for the standard level of retardation, because heel-and-toe isn't easy unless you're braking with the sort of sufficient force that you'd use on a committed track-day outing.
What you get for your money
There's an absolutely full equipment list on the Cupra R and no options in most markets it is sold in, save for track-day regulars having the choice of ordering a set of super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, instead of the standard Continental Sport Contact 6s. And there doesn't even seem to be a stupidly big premium to pay for the R, over and above a similar Cupra. So what a tragedy, then, that of the 799 being built in total, just 24 are being built in right-hand drive - and all of them are allocated to the UK. That means we're not even able to think about buying the Cupra R, although importing one here from across the Irish Sea might not be beyond the whit of man...
What we have here is undoubtedly one of the new hot hatch elite, yet - for all its friendly SEAT Leon-iness - one of the most unattainable cars on sale right now. Shy of moving to Germany at short notice, the country where the vast bulk of Leon Cupra R models are heading, quite how you get behind the wheel of this super-sharp, super-talented five-door is beyond us. Pity, because we definitely think the Cupra R deserves a wider audience. We're all for the limited edition, focused special model of an existing performance car, naturally, but perhaps SEAT has been a little too mean with the production numbers of this absorbing machine. Therefore, if you want the ultimate in front-wheel-drive performance, you'll have to buy a Honda Civic Type R... but you'll be wondering just how good the Leon Cupra R might have been, had you had a chance to purchase one. The answer is, it's sensational.